Shapeless, Formless & Drunk.
Drunken style kung fu is a high level systematic training method designed to break a martial artist out of old habits and expand their vocabulary into a truly spontaneous form of expression. The ability to freely express yourself in combat is of course a high ideal seen in most every martial art, cold calculation gives way to a more flowing appropriate method of movement when has achieved a high level of training. But the issue with martial arts is that people tend to get stuck into the idea of “their” art or style. Needing to feel the expression of the art must resemble accurately they way they train it. But with a sharp inwards look at our arts we see that the training we undergo is not the same as the ideals we are presented with by our teachers. For instance how many times have we heard a teacher admonish students for not being relaxed enough? Fang Song or the state of relaxed tautness, often likened to that of a drawn bow, is generally not what we see in the beginners studying our arts. Tension, rigidity and clean technique is the norm. So to look at this seeming paradox we have to take a look at ideals in our arts versus the methods we gain the skill to achieve those ideals. If our idea is to achieve free and spontaneous expression of movement in our arts we have a high standard to achieve before than can ever be possible, physically, mentally and philosophically. To begin with lets look at the source of many students first stumbling block which is cleanliness of technique.
Techniques are graded both in schools for ranks during tests on cleanliness but also in competition settings. A solid start and end of the technique is looked for by the judge as well as the shape of the finished technique. Just with these criteria we can see that a student is asked to refine his movement through many repetitions and corrections to adhere to a certain standard. This is where you can see the years of toil a student has gone through to perfect the outward appearance of a technique. For example in the simple straight punch known as the thrust punch in Karate or Black Tiger steals the Heart in Chinese Kung Fu we look for a list of things to be in place. The arm should be straight out from the heart or shoulder, the wrist straightened so the long bones of the forearm (radius and ulna) are lined up with the knuckles of the hand, the elbow slightly bent, the shoulder sitting down into its socket and the shoulder blade settled towards the waist and not protruding. A very attainable list of requirements and many many students learn this technique early on in their training and so become very familiar with it. But the issue that arises is first of all the shape of the technique becomes more important to the student than the reason for the shapes. Performance of the technique in competition and rank tests becomes a matter of creating a certain visual effect instead of demonstrating a true understanding of the technique. This is the first problem.
The second issue is that the student receives a reward for repetition of the shape of the posture in the form of awards at competitions or ranks in their school, driving home that the outward appearance is most important of all. If this is taken too seriously to heart the student ends up placing a limit on their progression in the art due to the importance paced on the outward appearances of their movement. This is where you see most martial artists lie in the traditional arts, animated museums of the martial arts. not living examples of them. Understandably we have to see that the ends are not being achieved here through this type of training alone but what then is the result we are looking for in our students and our own training?
If the result at high level of martial arts training is free action, totally spontaneous and malleable to the moment, then why are we training our students to be technical masters of movement? Because whether the action is totally free or mechanically rehearsed the standards applied to its physicality must remain the same. The long bones in the arm should line up with the weapons to create a transfer of force and support. The shoulder should be settled in the socket so as to transfer power and reduce chances of dislocation either from extreme whipping force in the punch or an opponent latching on to it and plucking it out. Each requirement does have reason and well thought out and researched ideals to adhere to but this does not mean the final shape of the technique must be clean and perfect! It means that during free and spontaneous expression of the art, when it is appropriate and a technique arises it adheres to its requirements regardless of its appearance. So in essence the technique of a beginner seems to appear much cleaner than that of a Master. However the movements of the Master have a certain something that is difficult to articulate into words. Watching an old Master do the same Black Tiger Steals the Heart punch tends to have a sloppiness attached to it. In the minds of most people who see such a performance of technique at high level, if asked candidly will respond with comments about the Masters age and how things change as one advances into their senior years. How the body begins to deteriorate and so on. In many cases this is exactly the answer to why the Masters technique looks a little sloppy and unrefined. However it is not always the case.
True High level movement loses its refined shape while retaining all its important core principals in the technique. This is the Master who may have very sloppy martial arts from the eye of a young practitioner but feels more powerful, quick and sharp than any young player. It seems magical but it is simply that the Master has understood the principals at work in the technique at a deep level and made the realization that How one trains in the martial arts and What that is actually training are two different things. This is one of the most elusive and difficult things for a student of the martial arts to understand, but to not put forth the effort to understand this idea is incorrect and limits the possible attainment in training over your lifetime. Most, if not all martial arts techniques as we train them as a beginner are not at all what they appear to be to us.